Winter is for fairy tales

Reviewer: Emera

Actually, every season is for fairy tales, but fairy tales are particularly wonderful when the weather is miserable, I find. Below, quick reviews of two stories that I read within the past few months, both spun from fairy tales. With any luck, I should be able to post a few more later in the week.

Nicole Kornher-Stace’s “Notes Toward a Comparative Mythology” (Fantasy Magazine, read 08.08.09) – Kornher-Stace has an edgy, almost jazzy voice that makes me think she’s probably also an adroit poet – she does have some poetry published with Goblin Fruit, I remember, but I have yet to read it. Make that a note to self.

“Two [babies] with webbing in the gaps between their fingers, toes. Supple and resilient stuff, and when the doctors sliced at it with scalpels, it grew back tough as bootsoles, lettuce-edged, and the very devil to excise.”

I had to read this selkie story twice for it to really click with me, but on the second read, I found that though Kornher-Stace’s wiry, ambitious language occasionally falls a little short of its aim, she’s a skillful, authoritative storyteller, and beautifully conveys the main character’s deepening anguish. The story’s emotional movements are spot-on – I found myself wanting to cheer and do a little dance at the end. I think Kornher-Stace is one to watch; I look forward to investigating her other works, especially her novel Desideria, which sounds right up my and Kakaner’s alleys.

Erzebet Yellowboy‘s “A Spell for Twelve Brothers” (also Fantasy Magazine, read 12.06.09) is a dark, not-so-successful retelling of the Wild Swans fairy tale. Its premise is interesting but unconvincingly executed, particularly since the author’s language is overly mannered and riddled with portentous, inexact metaphors. (“He stopped, he saw the star on her forehead and fell into its golden points.”) I read the first dozen or so paragraphs, then gave up and skimmed the rest.

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Nicole Kornher-Stace
Erzebet Yellowboy

B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth & Other Stories, by Mike Mignola (1998-2003) E

Date read: 5/31/08
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth and Other Stories collects side stories of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, from the Hellboy universe, though all (deliberately) absent the eponymous hero.

  • “Hollow Earth” (written by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski; art by Ryan Sook and Curtis Arnold): The fish-man Abe Sapien, Roger the homunculus, and a disembodied medium named Johann Krauss venture into the center of the earth, searching for their missing teammate.
  • “The Killer in my Skull” (written by Mike Mignola, art by Matt Smith and Ryan Sook): The B.P.R.D.’s Depression-era counterpart, Lobster Johnson, encounters a mad scientist.
  • “Abe Sapien versus Science” (written and inked by Mike Mignola, drawn by Matt Smith): A disquieting glimpse into the origins of both Abe and Roger.
  • “Drums of the Dead” (written by Brian McDonald, art by Derek Thompson): Abe and a young psychic investigate paranormal incidents – possession, inexplicable shark swarms, ghostly drumming – manifesting on an Atlantic shipping route.

I read the first Hellboy collection quite a while ago, and wasn’t impressed, but reading this actually motivated me to go back to the series. Though the stories aren’t terribly original, I’m a sucker for the art (most of the art in these stories closely emulates Mignola’s own, though whether that’s good or bad is debatable) and characters – particularly the erudite, gently tragic Abe. I love the art’s distinctively shadowy, bold look, and Dave Stewart’s dim colors give the series an appropriately eerie, pulp feel – the panels look as though they’ve had all the light sucked out of them, except for cigarette sparks and lantern glows and the occasional dose of phosphorescence or hellfire. This was especially effective for the haunted-ship story – I always love a good sea-ghost tale.

Bottom line: predictable stories, but the art and affecting characters win out for me.

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Mike Mignola

Sandman, 10 (and maybe 5) years later

“Change, change, change: Sandman and the ’90s”

I’ve had this link in my bookmarks-to-follow-up-on forever, but didn’t get around to checking it out till now, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s an essay about Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman by the (unnamed?) blogger of Grand Hotel Abyss, and it does a number of wonderful things. One, it elegantly examines the series’ central conflict – how to cope with change – and the ways in which the series’ characters choose to meet that conflict. I’ve always had trouble taking a step back from works and simply synthesizing like this, especially when the work in question is as sprawling, loopy, and multi-layered as Sandman, so I love finding lucidly written essays like this one that help give me a better vantage point.

Two, it considers the series’ characters in light of the particular tensions and concerns of the 90’s, of which it’s often considered an emblematic work. Of course this is only one reference frame within which to examine the series, but as someone whose knowledge of Culture stalled somewhere in the middle of 19th-century France, I found it a very useful and approachable introduction to the series’ immediate literary relevance. (I am yearning to say something about zeitgeist here, but I’m trying to establish an academic buzzword limit, especially since the essay itself segues into some discussion of pre- and postmodernism – though gracefully, I think.)

Three, it considers the series from the perspective of someone who first read the series at 16, and probes the question of why, like so many 16-year-olds at the time, she found the series so relevant – and how that same reader, 10 years older and wiser, feels about it now.

Continue reading Sandman, 10 (and maybe 5) years later

Stalking Tender Prey, by Storm Constantine (1995) K

Date Read: 9.24.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Stalking Tender Prey sets the stage for an epic trilogy by introducing the intertwining stories of the Grigori (fallen angels) family line which begin in a little countryside town, Lil Moor. Certain people in Lil Moor discover latent psychic abilities and the arrival of a traveling Grigori triggers a cascade of events that uncover the Grigori roots of Lil Moor. (First book of the Grigori Trilogy)

Review

Unfortunately, this book, and subsequently trilogy, pales in comparison to Wraeththu and the Magravandias trilogy. I’m a little bit surprised because Constantine has plenty of material to work with and sets up a rich landscape and sophisticated characters, but fails to do much with them.

I’d say the best point of this book was the character development, what I believe is consistently one of Constantine‘s strengths. Constantine somehow (I wouldn’t say masterfully) uses dialogue, subtle nuances of action, and atmosphere to create enchanting characters, who whether by their own self-realizations or due to the fantastical circumstances of their current lives, develop in amazing ways. Also unlike Wraeththu and Magravandias characters, each of the ones in Stalking Tender Prey seem to be shrouded in this veil of impenetrable mystery, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to quite grasp or connect to any on a personal level.

However, there was just about… no plot. The only plot that moved was a recurring flashback that mainly consisted of character develop of the Grigori traveler. Well, maybe “no plot” is a bit harsh, but the novel was basically a stagnant story about this little town in which nothing happens. Nevertheless, there was a climax and sex with a cat. Judging from this book, there is plenty of potential for the second book with respect to characters and plot threads, so I am still excited.

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Storm Constantine

Deerskin, by Robin McKinley (1993) E

Date read: 8.31.09 (second re-read – first read sometime in 2005)
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Princess Lissla Lissar lives quietly and invisibly in the shadows of her father and mother, who are worshiped by the people, and whose love for each other is all-consuming. When Lissar’s mother mysteriously wastes away, she forces her husband to swear that he will not remarry unless he finds a woman as beautiful as she was. This promise comes back to haunt the kingdom when Lissar, becoming a woman herself, attracts her father’s attention for the first time. Driven from the kingdom by an unendurable ordeal, Lissar escapes with her only friend, her dog Ash, and struggles to survive and reclaim her sense of self.

McKinley is definitely one of those authors whose strongest points can also be their downfalls – in this case, it’s her uncompromising principles and fanatical attention to detail. Obviously, if you’re going to realistically retell a fairy tale as poisonous and wrong as Donkeyskin/Patient Griselda/Allerleirauh, you have to set out to make it pretty darn grim, and, well, much of Deerskin is full of dread, toil, and distress. It’s also beautifully written, compassionate, and defiantly empowering, even as it denies magical cure-alls and 100% happy endings. I know it’s actually the favored comfort reading of a lot of women because of how viscerally empowering it is to grit your teeth alongside Lissar, and watch her claw her way to sanity and independence, and to finally reclaim her ability to love and be loved.

It is easy, however, to be put off by the extent to which Lissar’s travails continue. On this re-read, I did think the book guilty of pre-climactic sag, and I think the writing of the climax itself is pretty flawed, in that its dream-vision aspects are overwrought and poorly communicated. Nonetheless, I think that the dynamics underlying it are pretty clear and compelling both dramatically and psychologically, and I can only imagine how difficult of a scene it must have been to write.

Overall, Deerskin is a powerful handling of an extremely difficult subject, and I can’t imagine anyone else doing it like McKinley does.

On a side note, I was also tickled to realize during this re-read that Deerskin is, sneakily, part of the Damar universe – the setting of The Blue Crown and The Hero and the Sword. McKinley slips in a brief reference to the events of the latter book, specifically, but I hadn’t yet read it when I first read Deerskin. Hmmm, now I really want to re-read The Blue Crown.

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Robin McKinley

Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville (2007) K

Date Read: 3.31.07
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Deeba and Zanna begin to experience strange phenomena until suddenly, one day, they find themselves in the alternate universe of Unlondon. Here they find that Unlondon has been waiting for a long time for Zanna, the “Shwazzy,” to fight the evil Smog, an evil cloud of pollution. However, things are not what they seem when events contradict the prophecies and Deeba is forced to fight the Smog on her own.

Review

I MISS BEING 12.

I have a feeling that if I read this while in middle school, I would have deemed Un Lun Dun The Best Book Evar. The book is incredibly reminiscent of Phantom Tollbooth, chock full of strange realizations of imagination, each a quirky interpretation of something we find in our reality. There’s not much to say plot-wise… the bulk of content was simply the adventure and development of Unlondon and numerous characters, a delightful afternoon romp for the appreciative reader.

As I organized my thoughts for this review, I remembered the China Miéville event I attended at which I saw him speak about Un Lun Dun and the entire YA genre with vivid boyish excitement, and the memory is coloring my opinions of Un Lun Dun with much fondness. I crushed hard on the fact that so much of the humor and wit in Un Lun Dun was derived from references and puns concerning books. Some pun examples, though not necessarily book-related, are the Black Window, Unbrellas, and Bookaneers! But most of the circumstantial humor was centered around books, and made me suspect that Un Lun Dun was really a huge elaborate scheme to write a book to promote the message: “BOOKS ARE TEH SH*T!” and it made me extremely happy.

Unfortunately, I actually don’t consider Un Lun Dun a must-read. But if you’re a die hard Miéville fan, definitely check it out. The main character is very likeable, and it is an insanely easy read with maximum 4-page chapters. To top it all off, you get to see Miéville‘s very own original illustrations. There’s nothing better (or sometimes worse) than observing an author treading new ground, and Mieville does so quite expertly. There is indeed a deep understanding of the YA psyche and which elements excite the imagination.

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China Miéville
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville (2007) E

The Music of Razors, by Cameron Rogers (2007) E

Date read: 10.29.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

In 19th-century Boston, a brilliant medical student falls in with a group of young spiritualists, only to see his hopes and plans go terribly awry as a result of their experimentations. A century and a half later, he walks the earth weary and immortal, wielding instruments made from the bones of a murdered angel, and seeking to discharge the task that he took upon himself at the height of his despair. Finally seeing a candidate worthy of becoming his successor, he enters the dreams of a boy named Walter. The young and frightened Walter learns that all he needs to do to banish his bad dreams is tell the monster in his closet to go away – only to learn too late that it was the monster who stood between him and a force banished from the universe at the beginning of time.

If the above summary sounds complicated, it doesn’t even begin to represent the full breadth of the mythology of The Music of Razors. This is a universe big enough for fallen angels, closet monsters, and a clockwork ballerina to coexist over several centuries and in the same 300 pages. The novel’s pace and complexity are undeniably demanding, especially in the beginning chapters, but the reward is that every time the page is turned, you uncover a new secret of this strange mythology, and your mind constantly stretches to keep up with the narrative’s wicked twists and hinted truths. All of these elements are convincingly and for the most part satisfyingly intertwined, and the ending of the novel delivers a volley of heavy emotional punches before leaving the reader with that perfect combination of feeling fulfilled, yet still wanting more.

I do think that the pacing could have used some stretching and breathing space to improve coherence, allow the reader more time with the characters’ emotions, and reduce the ending’s frenzied, overexplosive feel. However, from what I understand of the novel’s publishing history, there were constraints placed on its length. The first, Australian publication, released in 2001, was even shorter. Significantly more material was added to the American release, but from the sounds of it, Rogers would have liked even more.

Rogers’ writing is briskly dark, his brief sentences filled with a subtle, glancing menace, capable of both brutality and a wistful, fairy-tale loveliness. He seems to write with a grim kind of exhilaration, as aware of the emotional and spiritual weight of the story and its characters as he is of the breathtaking leaps of imagination employed in fully animating it.

This is a novel that offers immediate, visceral pleasure and sorrow, as well as food for later thought – in particular, Rogers has fascinating things to say about the role of our fears in shaping our selves. The panoply of fantastical elements also means that there is something here for all tastes, from historical fantasy to horror. All in all, I highly recommend The Music of Razors. Even if flawed, this is one of the most memorable fantasy novels I have read in recent years, and I know that many of its denizens will be staying with me for the rest of my life. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Caitlín R. Kiernan will likely enjoy this book.

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Cameron Rogers
Cameron Rogers interview with Tabula Rasa

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006) E

Date read: 8.31.09
Read from: Personal collection, via Subterranean Press
Reviewer: Emera

Alabaster collects five works of Kiernan’s short fiction, all centered on her character Dancy Flammarion, first introduced in her novel Threshold. (Note that I’d never read any of Kiernan’s work before this, so this collection clearly stands well on its own, both as introduction to Dancy as a character and to Kiernan’s work in general.) Dancy is an orphaned, albino girl who seeks out and kills monsters on the command of a terrifying angel. Each of the stories records her encounter with one of the monsters that the angel sends her to find, and peels back a layer of Dancy’s past and psyche, to reveal how deeply damaged and used she is.

To say that Dancy is a tragic character doesn’t even come close. Each of the monsters she meets, though technically monstrous so far as it comes to killing people in horrible ways and so on, is far more self-aware than is Dancy – and thus, in a certain sense, more fully human. Likewise, they can see her situation far more clearly than she ever does. Ultimately, what the stories show the reader is that Dancy is a monster of another kind: a crippled soul who will never truly understand who she is, what she does, or why she does it, and will never be loved by another being, human or otherwise. I would like to think that she’s not irredeemable, but at least within these stories, she’s hopelessly lost and severed from humanity, and sustained only by her faith in an angel that the reader soon realizes has no interest in her as an individual and is, of course, yet another kind of monster in an endless and highly relative bestiary.

Continue reading Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006) E

King Rat, by China Miéville (1998) E

Date read: 10.10.08
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

The day after stumbling drunk into his father’s flat, Saul Garamond wakes to find that he is the chief suspect in his father’s killing – which occurred as he slept one room over. Sprung from jail by a raggedly pompous, sinuously sinister figure who calls himself King Rat and claims that Saul’s mother was herself a rat, Saul uncovers the truth of his father’s death, and of his strange heritage in the sewers of London.

So this was an “eh” sort of read. Very Miéville (twisty, dark, and Urban with a capitual u, and an umlaut for good measure), and  good for a first novel, but still obviously a first novel – it’s clear why he didn’t make it big until Perdido Street Station. I found the book intriguing, but not compelling: I was convinced of its mythology and milieu, but not terribly interested, and it simply didn’t have the heft and engrossing sense of reality that the Bas-Lag books do. Add in a general sketchiness as far as character development goes, and the result was that that I imagined Miéville sitting down one day and telling himself that he wanted to write a novel about the Pied Piper legend…. WITH DRUM ‘N’ BASS. And of course a good helping of Socialism. So: too many pet elements without enough connective tissue for them to hang together comfortably. I did like the ambiguity of the King Rat character, though, and found him a memorable figure.

For the record, those interested in other Pied Piper retellings might try looking up Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the first story, “Paid Piper,” in Tanith Lee’s collection Red as Blood. The former is very polished and amusing, and the latter is very weird. There’s also a not-so-great one with a silly twist ending in Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red (from their retold fairy tale anthology series), whose not-so-greatness is manifest in the fact that I can’t remember the author, although the title was something along the lines of “A Sound, As of Angels.” Hmm.

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China Miéville
Looking for Jake (2005) K
The City & The City (2009) K

The Inside, by Isaac Marion (2008) E

Date read: 2.6.09
Read from: Originally borrowed from Kakaner; now in personal collection, via Burning Building
Reviewer: Emera

At twelve, David falls asleep on a schoolbus, and meets, literally, the girl of his dreams. In real life, he grows up, marries a woman he thinks he loves, and proceeds to destroy both of their lives. He is unable to shed the belief that somewhere beyond the world he sees every day, there’s another one that’s more vital, more beautiful – and most importantly, is home to the girl whom he still glimpses in maddeningly brief and unpredictable snatches. Soon, even his waking life is invaded by the inexplicable: radio towers appear and disappear; cryptic cassette tapes appear on his welcome mat; he wakes up in his car in places that he doesn’t remember driving to. David is terrified, infuriated, and eventually obsessed by these “messages,” desperate to take control and escape a life that seems to hold no meaning except for the conviction that love lies elsewhere.

The Inside is a strange book. Though I hate to pin it down with genre terms (I know, then why am I doing it?), it’s most easily described as part psychological horror/suspense, part romance, part weird. After Kakaner lent me her copy (I bought my own later), I was haunted by it every moment that I wasn’t actually reading it, quite as obsessed as David, and a little frightened. Ultimately, I didn’t even care so much about the eventual reveals as I did about the process of getting to them, which is absolutely absorbing, often moving, and beautiful in a crazed, pained kind of way. I do think the novel falters towards the end, which I found somewhat rushed and a little incoherent, and there are certain other moments when Marion tries too hard to maintain the book’s tone, and slips into wryer-than-thou territory. Overall, though, Marion is an extremely assured writer, with a distinctive, effective voice and good control of pacing and plot.

Continue reading The Inside, by Isaac Marion (2008) E